Theatre Review: Candide

Crazy good

Crazy good

Presented by: State Theatre Company South Australia and State Opera South Australia
Reviewed on: May 23, 2024

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is usually billed as an operetta, but is sometimes viewed as comic opera. Others claim it as part of the music theatre canon. So, what is it about? 

After a dizzying world tour, prize muggins Candide gets his girl and settles down to live a humble and productive life.  It takes 2½  hours, 11 principal artists, a State Opera chorus of 30 augmented by 44 students from the undergraduate Music Theatre course at Elder Conservatorium, not to mention a fine conductor and his magnificent 44-piece orchestra to get that hapless lad Candide sorted out. In a story that rockets from Westphalia to Lisbon, then Paris, Cádiz, Montevideo, El Dorado, Surinam, Venice and Constantinople, this show offers enough colour, movement and zany plot twists to satisfy even the most ADHD-afflicted audience member. After seeing this show, a savvy 21-year-old said to me “Well that was a wack story.” Be warned – it is.

Co-directors Mitchell Butel and Amy Campbell have cleverly contrived to stage this sprawling picaresque tale (which has a nodding acquaintance with Voltaire’s satirical novel of 1759) in concert format. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hunt, is on stage. The augmented chorus, elevated across the back of the stage, is visible throughout the performance. Action takes place in front of and around the orchestra. It’s a format popularised by Melbourne’s Production Company musicals. It takes ingenuity and courage to wrangle this orchestrally-heavy piece into theatrically satisfying vignettes which keep us watching and listening to the actors instead of focussing on the orchestra in the room. Butel and Campbell have succeeded brilliantly in this, aided by Anthony Hunt’s nuanced dynamics and spot-on tempi. From the first notes of that famous Overture, Hunt gives his orchestra and singers assured, energetic direction, without allowing the orchestral weight to swamp sung tone. There must have been a very gifted audio technician on the desk, managing vocal and instrumental microphones; I couldn’t spot their name in the programme.

As Candide, tenor Alexander Lewis, in patched blue shorts, long socks and a little red neckerchief, does gormlessness with great grace and skill. His acting drives the narrative, with even his sung vocal choices restrained and guileless until he reveals his vocal resources at the end of the show.  His performance has a consummate lightness of touch. 

There are three knock-your-socks-off performers, each a marvel in their own way. As Cunegonda, Annie Aitken sings with an accurate, bright steely sound which, laser-like, penetrates every corner of the house. Her acting is excellent, in no small way aided by her auburn corkscrew curls and purple multi-layered ruffled tango skirt. She’s fun. In her role as The Old Lady, Caroline O’Connor never misses an opportunity for a visual gag, an innuendo-laden glance or a joyous vocal send-up. O’Connor’s character is disruptive, iconoclastic and bombastic. She fulfils these requirements effortlessly;  the audience loves this uninhibited,  full-throated ratbag. Third in the trio is a performer called Hans, who undertakes the role of Maximilian. I thought of Russian babushka dolls and wondered about a performer performing a performer.  Fortunately, Hans’ extensive cabaret work has prepared him for this role, and it fits him like a sequinned bodystocking. He provides camp by the truckload, but that’s just what the narcissistic Maximilian needs. Whilst including bits of Hans shtick (his signature hats and blue sequinned eyeshadow), his lively singing and acting consistently serve the plot beautifully. This solo cabaret star integrates well with his fellow performers in ways which betray the excellence of Butel’s and Campbell’s direction. 

Taylah Johns is a relative theatrical newcomer, having graduated last year from Elder Conservatorium’s Music Theatre course. Her performance of coquettish Paquette is lively and personable. She sings, acts and inhabits each scene with confident energy and grace. This is the beginning of a career to watch.

Five more busy principal performers fulfil between them a long list of roles, from Baroness to Bear-keeper. Each one shines. John Longmuir, in fine voice, swaggers most gratifyingly. Pocket rocket Michaela Burger reappears all night in an array of mad costumes; she is always watchable, clear and strong. The vocally lavish Ezra Juanta does an excellent line in swarthy bad boys. Reliable Rod Schultz, as cleric, royal or glittering casino boss, brings wonderful vocal and acting skill to each wacky role. Rosie Hosking, contriving to look more Patsy Stone than Joanna Lumley ever managed, displays an impressive breadth of acting skills in each of her roles, singing and speaking with power and grace.

One principal performer remains; one of the Co-directors, Mitchell Butel. It is sheer joy to see Butel performing Dr Pangloss, as well as doing the lion’s share of the narration. His performance laces this whole rumbustious epic piece together. Twinkle-eyed, vocally rich and with excellent articulatory clarity, he becomes a cross between Dumbledore and a charismatic preacher. His Best Of All Possible Worlds sets the pace for the show, and his Dear Boy is delicious. He is a theatrical powerhouse.

The choral work is beautiful. It sounds sharp, defined, powerful and very satisfying. Notable are the clarity of Bon Voyage. the satisfying quietness of Universal Good and the majestic choral quality of Make Our Garden Grow. And, of course, the Mexican Wave in I Am Easily Assimilated

With no set to speak of, other than seven illuminated cubes and a flurry of polka dots on assorted surfaces (thanks to Ailsa Paterson), costume design assumes considerable importance. Costume designer Brendan de la Hay has a field day.  He was clearly given his head. Witty, workable and memorable, his costuming shines, expanding and enhancing the narrative. Gavin Norris’ clever lighting design does a great deal to establish atmosphere, focus action and define mood 

There is a very good reason why I have failed to discuss any plot details of Candide. Please see my young friend’s observation (above). Yes, it is a wack story. But the way Butel and Campbell have shaped it, the manic absurdism is engaging and entertaining, with not a minute’s boredom. In a night filled with colour and movement, glorious orchestral playing, magnificent singing and acting, choral excellence and design brilliance of both costumes and lighting, this combined production of two of our flagship performance arts companies is sheer entertainment at a very high level indeed. Bravo!

Reviewed by Pat H. Wilson

Photo credit: Andrew Beveridge

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Season: 23rd – 25th May, 2024
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes (incl. interval)

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